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Rising homelessness throughout the San Diego region has been met by some with new strategies to address it. La Mesa’s outreach worker-led program is one of them.
The city’s Homeless Outreach and Mobile Engagement program, or HOME, is by all accounts, a welcome change to the way La Mesa interacts with its homeless population by sending outreach workers rather than cops to respond to calls involving low-level criminal conduct. Those outreach workers spend their days providing direct aid and assistance to individuals on the street and guiding them through the complex processes required to attain much-needed resources.
But that’s only one piece of the puzzle.
As HOME’s outreach workers freely admit, their attempts to counsel people off the streets will be stymied if there’s nowhere to direct them long term. A lack of affordable and permanent supportive housing options lies at the root of the region’s difficulties. Despite some progress on that front, the going remains slow, largely due to what some view as onerous zoning and construction regulations and vocal community opposition.
Without available units, some advocates contend, outreach is just an elaborate game of moving people around. Housing, or rather a lack of affordable housing, is a key driver of homelessness, especially among older adults who are increasingly priced out of the market.
HOME’s approach is a focus on personalized solutions to specific problems. These go beyond simply finding someone housing, said Matthew Smiley, director of the program. And often, he said, finding solutions to specific problems can be a quicker and more cost-effective way to get people off the streets than simply offering resources and services to all individuals.
That includes everything from helping individuals get their cars repaired or registered, funding motel stays and walking them through the steps needed to be connected to shelter or physical and mental health care.
Smiley recalled working with one client who, after the death of her mother with whom she lived, was unable to keep up with rent and was eventually evicted. She was able to obtain a decent-paying job, he said, but $2,000 owed to a debt collection agency in connection to her previous eviction prevented her from securing a new place to live.
The HOME program, which is funded through state and federal grants, was able to pay off that debt, which allowed her to move out of her car and into an apartment.
Another common barrier, Smiley said, is a Social Security card, which is required to move into rapid rehousing, or any type of permanent housing.
“If you’ve lost that, which many homeless people do, it becomes increasingly difficult to even get a replacement,” Smiley said. “So even the first step to get signed up to these programs becomes nearly impossible for people and it becomes an impossible system to navigate.”
Hanan Scrapper at the nonprofit People Assisting the Homeless, or PATH, with which the city of La Mesa contracted to build out a framework for HOME during its first year of operation, said having workers embedded in the community who can provide that “hand-holding” type of support is vital.
“Each step has so many little nuances,” Scrapper said. “I can easily give a referral to someone and say, ‘call this number, and they will help you,’ but that may not mean anything to that person, they may not even have minutes to use on their phone, or may not even have a phone to do that.”
But ultimately, outreach services only go so far.
Lawrence McCoy, who’s lived on the streets both in San Diego and in San Francisco, said that, unlike some other programs he’s worked with, HOME’s outreach workers followed through with what they said they were going to do. Smiley found him housing, purchased food and some other basics for his new home, and gave him a ride there in the program’s van.
“This is like a whole new chapter of my life, I’m starting over from scratch,” McCoy said. “Now that I’ve got housing, I’ve got a reason to wake up in the morning.”
But a lack of housing options in the area led Smiley to relocate McCoy from La Mesa to San Diego.
“Outreach can only be as effective as the housing resources that are available to them,” said Barbara Poppe, an adviser on homeless services and affordable housing, and former executive director of the United States’ Interagency Council on Homelessness.
She’s concerned by what she sees as an increasing trend by elected officials to portray outreach services as “solutions” to homelessness. Outreach is certainly helpful to people living on the streets, she said, but what’s really needed is simply more housing and connected supportive services.
“I think what HOME is doing is worthy,” she said, “but if it gets sold as ‘this is how we’re going to solve homelessness,’ then what that actually means is they’re going to get HOME to engage with people and talk as many of them as they can, to leave our community and go to this other place where the shelter is.”
“This doesn’t get us to a solution,” she said, “but you do spend a bunch of money.”
Since most complaints about homeless individuals, like human waste and trash on the streets, are about things that can only be solved by giving people a place to go, residents frequently sour on outreach programs when they’re not paired with housing alternatives, she said.
Indeed, HOME workers freely acknowledge the inextricable link between a lack of housing options and homelessness.
In an interview with 10News in November, Smiley said “you can have 20 of me running around La Mesa but if there’s no affordable housing for people to go to, there’s no wraparound services available, no amount of outreach can fix that.”
La Mesa’s 2021-2026 Homeless Action Plan also lists a lack of affordable housing as a primary cause of homelessness and the construction of more affordable and permanent supportive housing as a key to addressing the issue. The housing that does exist has also become increasingly pricey. According to an analysis by real estate website Redfin, the cost of homes in La Mesa jumped 25 percent since last year, while Apartment List found rent had increased by 21 percent. The median price of a one-bedroom is $1,910 and $2,370 for a two-bedroom.
The city has begun to fill that gap — for example, paving the way for 147 units on the site of the former police building last year. Additionally, the City Council blocked an attempt to stall the construction of an affordable housing project on Wilson Street that’ll provide another 49 units.
But it has also missed key opportunities.
In September 2020, the county withdrew a proposal to use state funds to purchase a La Mesa hotel and turn it into permanent housing after residents and elected officials complained about a lack of local input. The city also chose not to submit an application during the most recent submission period for homeless housing dollars through the state.
La Mesa City Councilman Colin Parent was an advocate of that failed 2020 effort. He said the HOME program has had some success but underscored that there simply isn’t enough housing for HOME to connect people with.
According to a 2021 community opinion survey, homelessness and affordable housing were two of the top concerns for La Mesa residents. Nearly 100 percent of respondents said addressing homelessness was either extremely, very or somewhat important, while 81 percent said the same about the construction of cheaper homes.
But despite the broad support, Parent said public pushback remains an issue. But that pushback can give a distorted picture of what the community actually wants.
“When these issues are brought up, the opponents to those things are oftentimes much more engaged and active in attending hearings and making their voices heard, even if they don’t represent what most of their neighbors want,” Parent said.
Another key issue is the complexity and high cost of construction in California.
“Anyone who wants to build deed-restricted, subsidized affordable housing, they have to jump through all of the hoops that a market-rate developer has to, plus a whole extra set of hoops,” Parent said.
The hold up has to do with the financing process of affordable housing, which requires developers to apply for funding from a variety of programs at the local, state and federal level.
At the same time, Parent highlighted the need for alternate options for individuals who may be dealing with serious mental health issues, citing his support for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s CARE Courts proposal. The plan, also supported by San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, would create a separate branch of courts under each county’s civil division with the ability to mandate year-long individualized treatment plans for people diagnosed on the schizophrenic spectrum or with another psychotic disorder, and who “lack the capacity to make informed or rational decisions about their medically necessary treatment.”
But some organizations, like the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, oppose the plan. In a recent letter to the state senators sponsoring the bill, they argued it would create “a system of involuntary, coerced treatment, enforced by an expanded judicial infrastructure, that will, in practice, simply remove unhoused people with perceived mental health conditions from the public eye without effectively addressing those mental health conditions and without meeting the urgent need for housing.”
The underlying lack of housing — as well as rising housing costs and the destabilization caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — is part of why Bonnie Baranoff, who serves on the steering committee of East County Homeless Task Force, said she thinks the number of individuals living on the streets will be higher in this count than in previous years.
Additionally, HOME gave organizers of the 2022 homeless count information on where they’d received calls for service, so the number may well increase simply because volunteers knew where to look.
“There’s plenty of room for expansion, but what they’ve accomplished in the first year and a half of that program, I think, has been really astounding,” Baranoff said.
Earl Childress, one of HOME’s two outreach workers, struck a more cautious note. Though he felt he was making more of a difference in his current position than with other homeless outreach organizations he’d worked for, he said it was still too early to tell just how successful HOME had been.
“Give us a year and let’s review it, and if it’s not working I’ll be the first to tell you,” Childress said. “Because one of the things I hate is to be ineffective.”
Even so, he wasn’t sure whether a program like HOME could be expanded to other areas. It’s one thing in a city like La Mesa, with a relatively smaller number of individuals living on the streets. But the number of workers it would take to serve the homeless population downtown, for example, would be significant.
He was also skeptical of officials’ ability to create real, lasting change.
“Do I feel like I’m shoveling sand into the ocean sometimes? Yeah,” Childress said. “Solving this issue is going to be incredibly difficult. It’s going to require a quotient of political will that does not exist in our society these days.”